Friday, August 29, 2003

One thing about me is this: I don’t care if I’m ever lost because this has sometimes led to the most unexpectedly interesting experiences, but I do care if I’m lost or without access to good food especially in Paris. Thus nearly every page of my Paris Plan has a sticky note with a small list of carefully researched restaurants, bistros, brasseries, or wine bars (not to mention jazz clubs) should I ever find myself lost or in an area in need a good meal, drink, or music. What some call an obsession I think of as good planning.

Today I had to meet a friend at the Bastille at 230 but then had to rush back to the Sorbonne before 4 o’clock. I had just gotten out of class and seeing that it was the second last class of the August session, I was keen on the idea of a break from my normal routine of reviewing the day’s lecture immediately after class. With my Paris plan in hand I checked my sticky notes for anything between the Sorbonne and the Bastille. A La Biche au Bois was calling me.

First impressions of a restaurant can often set the tone for the entire meal to follow. Given that I had just decided to go out for lunch I arrived at around 1PM to a nearly packed dining room with no reservation. At a time like this I put on my best “please have sympathy for me face” and ask somewhat apologetically if there is any possibility of a table. The hostess, who turned out also to be the proprietor, welcomed me as if I was a guest in her home and offered to seat me immediately in the dining room filled mainly with French business men.

A fellow Chowhound described A La Biche au Bois as a “genuine old-fashioned bistrot parisien” offering a “vrai Paris dining experience.” It was exactly that. The pretty dining room of closely packed tables were set with crisp white linens and silver. Any expectation of formality was supplanted by the two very engaging proprietors, a husband and wife team. A row of statuettes added a whimsical touch above the banquette-- some of a smiling chef with a wooden spoon in one hand and others of funky black characters.

When I returned from the toilette, an elderly lady has just arrived about to be seated at the empty table next to mine. My response when she asked if I wouldn’t mind changing tables with her made us fast friends. It turned out that she and her husband, who was just parking the car, typically dine here twice a week once each at lunch and at dinner.

The restaurant’s name roughly translates into “the doe in the woods.” It follows that game (les gibiers) is the house specialty but the season hadn’t quite yet arrived. The proprietor expected it would be on the menu by next week. He said it was being hunted as we speak and then proceeded to pretend shoot with his imaginary rifle into the air.

The reasonable set menu was 22.30 euros for three courses of one’s choosing from entrée, plat*, cheese, and dessert. In addition to the day’s special entrée and plat which were included in the set menu option, there were also a range of menu choices with only a few demanding a supplement. The recommendation from both the waiter and my friend at the next table was to commence with either the house-made terrine of duck or rabbit; I settled on “la terrine de canard.” My entrée of two generous slices of duck terrine served alongside a salad of butter lettuce and a pot of gherkins arrived within minutes of my order.

For the main course I ordered the day’s special, a rabbit stewed in white wine sauce with mash or “lapin au vin blanc en cassolette puree.” The main course was equally generous and I could immediately see that it was much bigger than my now nearly satiated appetite. The rabbit, a leg and I think two small pieces of breast, were very tender nearly falling off the bone. The accompanying white wine sauce was very light with delicate notes of thyme and reminded me of the sauce of my grandmother’s beef stew one of the few stews I still crave from childhood. It was a perfect sauce for smothering the mashed potatoes but not that they lacked flavour. The very creamy mash had comfort food written all over it. It was flavourful although different than what I’m used to which I guess comes from using crème fraîche instead of heavy cream. I’m also convinced any butter over here is better than the best that’s available on the other side of the Atlantic. In the end I couldn’t finish it all but I made an honourable attempt. Not only did I not have room for dessert or coffee but I had to head off for my 230 rendez-vous before I realized.

Lunch at A La Biche au Bois was more like a feast as my lunch of choice these days consists of cucumber slices, tomatoes, some cheese, sometimes bread, and a bit of wine when I really need to facilitate my comprehension of some particularly convoluted aspect of French grammar. The food was well executed and the experience so agreeable I wouldn’t hesitate to return, but I would in all likelihood prefer to try it at dinner when game is in season. Upon learning from my friend at the next table that there are sometimes line-ups, it would also be prudent to reserve ahead rather than leave a table to chance.

*Note: Entrée refers to what we call the appetizer in North America. Similarly, plat or les plats refer to the mains.

45, ave Ledru-Rollin 75012, tel 01.4343.3438. Open daily for lunch & dinner except Sat & Sun

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Almost anywhere else the end of August marks a bit of sadness and a longing to extend whatever is left of summer. Although fall is my favourite season it is also a distant reminder that the dark days of winter are not far behind. There are already physical signs marking autumn in Paris-- fallen leaves, crisp morning air, and less daylight. But there is also a joy to the end of August. Life in Paris becomes "normal" again. Restaurants and shops throughout the city re-open for business after their annual August holidays. Gerard Mulot will resume business this week. The sign in Pierre Hermes' window advises that the shop will re-open tomorrow at 10AM. I've no doubt there will be a queue outside the door for their pastries. One Chowhound writes, "Pierre Herme pastry on a bench outside Saint Sulpice is a very good approximation of what a piece of heaven is." I have been waiting for a taste of heaven since the beginning of August. The end of this month couldn't have arrived any sooner for me.

Sunday, August 24, 2003

My grandmother used to frequent the Edmonton farmer's market on Saturday mornings to buy chickens (and a lot of them I might add). I would often accompany her when I was in grade school, but it was really too crowded at too early of an hour for me. Besides that there wasn’t much about raw produce or poultry I found interesting at that age.

Given that as background I can't explain what possessed me to explore a food market with my sister in Normandy one year. We even woke up in the dark hours of early dawn to witness the vendors setting up their stalls. Frankly, we were a little crazy. Actually, I think I was the crazy one who persuaded her of the idea as only someone who was earning her keep in sales/marketing at the time could. Since that experience almost ten years ago I have loved everything about markets. Yet for something that so completely changed my view of them I cannot for the life of me tell you which market we were at that morning. It was at a time when I believed I could forever recall at will even the minutest of details; I now know better so I've since learned to be a copious note-taker.

There are many things I would crawl out of bed at the crack of dawn for and exploring a market would be high on that list. With my early class schedule at the Sorbonne this has proved impractical on weekdays. This weekend I hauled myself out of bed and out of the apartment walking the distance to the Bastille. One thing I've learned about markets is to survey them first otherwise I find myself with more food than there is room in my tiny frigo or is practically possible to eat in a day or two. The Bastille market has many produce stalls but also other non-produce offerings of interest. There is a spice stall in the middle of the market at which I discovered a world of peppercorns beyond just black, green, white, and pink. The poivre long was intriguing; charcoal coloured and shaped like elongated miniature pine cones. The poivre du Sichuan, otherwise called poivre fleur, is known to possess a complex aroma noted for its woody and subtle flavour (if my translation proves accurate). And then there were little brown coloured ones from Guinea, larger black peppercorns labelled poivre a Queue, some from Jamaica, and picquante poivre blanc de Penja from Cameroon. All of a sudden the world of peppercorns exploded. As I'm standing there furiously taking notes the vendor started regurgitating what I can only guess was supposed to be his phone number. We both laughed but I think for different reasons. He at his own humour and me because I was probably still translating the first two digits "quatre-vingt."

I never go seeking foie gras; but it seems to follows me. I told the proprietor at "La Petite Scierie" on l'Ilse Saint-Louis I would return to sample the foie gras another day when I hadn't just had lunch. Now the vendor at "Le Petite Perigourdine" was encouraging me to sample the foie gras entier. He sells the products of his family's farm at this market on Sundays which includes confit, foie gras, and cassoulet. I've never tasted foie gras not to my liking but it does require getting over the conditions under which it is produced which I most certainly did after foie gras first met my lips years ago.

The Bastille market kept me so entertained I never made it to the nearby marche at Place d'Aligre but I've the whole month of September for that. I returned to the apartment at 1PM absolutely famished with a small load of produce, roasted chicken legs, and pain ancienne. A lunch of roasted chicken with a quickly assembled green salad and some of that great bread was perfect fare even though my version of roasted chicken is much better. But some Fleur de Sel kicked that chicken leg up to new heights. Fleur de Sel: don't season anything without it!

Marche Bastille blvd Richard Lenoir b/w rue Amelot & rue Saint-Sabin. Thu-Sun 7AM to 230PM. M: Bastille

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